The visitation room is a white-walled space with scuffed floors and bench seating like that of an airport terminal. In one corner sits a raised desk where officers loiter and scout the room. Refrigerated vending machines along the opposite wall dispense fish sandwiches and barbecued ribs for four dollars a piece.
My father is among the morning’s first visitors and sits alone beside the water fountains looking sad and regal like an ousted king with his crown of corn-silk hair combed back, chin held erect, and hands, emaciated from diabetes, clasped in his lap. He wears blue jeans and a simple brown polo shirt. He looks tired. Since Texas raised the speed limit along I-20 from seventy to seventy-five, the drive from Dallas to Mississippi–when you factor in fast food stops, refueling, and grabbing coffee at the Starbucks in Ruston, Louisiana–takes about seven hours provided you don’t get behind a semi.
“Good to see you, Son.” His embrace, firm and surprisingly strong, give me hope. “Sit down; have a seat. I see you’ve ironed your clothes.”
I point to the name tag laminated beneath my shirt pocket, a new institutional policy. “This is in case you forget my name.”
He laughs delicately. “So how are you? What have you been up to?”
“Nothing much. Same old, same old.” It’s a rather absurd question. “And you?”
His grin is strained as though a child is tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Oh, you know. Same shit. Nothing changes.”
Over where the officers sit, a radio belches something indecipherable. My father looks over, annoyed.
“I take it Mom couldn’t come?” I ask.
Turning his attention back to me, face sagging, he says, “I tried, Son. Believe me, I tried.”
“What did she say?”
“I asked her yesterday if she wanted to come and she said no. I begged and pleaded with her. She just sat there; said she was tired.”
Behind my father, a young Muslim boy has wandered over to the locked playroom and stands on his toes peering in through the darkened window. A sign on the door reads NO CHILDREN ALLOWED WITHOUT ADULT SUPERVISION.
“She’s always tired,” my father continues and adds, conspiratorially, “I don’t see why. Since I’ve been out of work, she doesn’t do anything but go to work, come home, eat, watch TV, brush the cat, and go to bed.”
Deflated, the boy walks back to where his father and family sits. I wonder if he’ll end up in prison like his daddy; incarceration is generational.
“I put in for a transfer yesterday,” I say.
Dad perks up. “That’s great news, Son. Good to hear it. When will you know something?”
“They say it takes six weeks. Hopefully I’ll hear something by the beginning of November.”
“Did they say what the odds are that they’ll move you to Texas?”
“It depends on bed space. If there’s no space in Texas, I’ll probably end up at the low here.”
“That won’t be so bad. Not bad at all. You hungry?”
I follow my father to the vending machines, slowing my pace to match his. In my mind’s eye, he is still the bearer of protection and punishment, the man who enrolled my older brother in karate and taught us how to snap planks of wood in half with our bare hands. The incongruity between that man and the mortal beside me makes me feel uneasy. I want to protect him.
The vending machines are quarantined behind a red line which inmates must not pass; only visitors may operate the machines. From his pocket, my father produces a stack of folded dollar bills and a ziplock bag of quarters–twenty dollars worth of money, the maximum allowed per visitor.
While I deliberate, Dad settles on the double pork chop sandwich. He unfolds four bills and smooths them between his thumb and index finger before feeding them into the machine. As a child, I use to squirm away from those fingers which had always felt floury on the bare nape of my neck and reeked of garlic from the twelve- and sixteen-hour shifts he spent cooking. I imagine the smell is still there, a yellow odor that stains like nicotine.
“What’ll it be, Son?”
I point to slot thirteen–the Big AZ Chicken Sandwich.
My father feeds four more bills into the machine. While he stoops, with some caution, to collect the sandwiches, I stand behind the red line with my hands in my pockets feeling dumb and childish. I should be treating my father to dinner at a steak house. Instead, I’m watching him fumble around in a vending machine for a four-dollar Big AZ sandwich that I can’t even buy for myself. I feel the need to apologize but mutter a thank you instead as he hands me my food.
Another family has taken our seats, so we carry our sandwiches, sodas, paper towels and mustard packets to an empty row of chairs beside the windows which are barred and overlook a paved courtyard surrounded by cinder block walls–the outdoor visitation area. Several years ago, an inmate tried escaping over the walls and the space was closed indefinitely.
“I’m sorry about your mother.”
“Christ, Dad. Don’t be sorry. She probably doesn’t want the aggravation. Who could blame her? What mother wants to drive seven hours to see her son locked up? It’s depressing.”
“Maybe you’re right,” he says. “How’s your food?”
I take a bite of my sandwich. The bun and chicken patty meld into a tasteless sponge that sticks to my teeth. I’m convinced by the second bite that the cheese has turned until, upon inspecting the wrapper, I discover the source of the off taste–“Blue Cheese Flavored Cheese Product.”
“It’s okay,” I say. “How’s your double pork chop?”
Dad wipes at his mouth with a paper towel. “I’m glad they gave us mustard.”
By one o’clock, the visitation room is buzzing. Babies cry while the older children, restless from confinement, wander the room devising games to keep themselves entertained. A black family has gathered to have their picture taken in front of the canvas backdrop that hangs painted with an unsuccessful Mediterranean landscape beside the visitors’ bathrooms. My father, prompted by my opening a can of strawberry Fanta, reminisces about his favorite childhood soda, Grapette, which he tells me use to be America’s number two soft drink until it was bought by PepsiCo in 1975 and killed off. I imagine my father as a small boy with curly hair and purple tongue.
“Did you finish painting the house?” I ask.
Dad brushes pork chop breading from his lap. His face sags and the age spot beneath his right eye withers. “It’s getting there,” he says.
My mother is notoriously fickle when it comes to choosing paint colors. She is the type of person who likes the idea of bold color but who nonetheless feels safest living among white walls, or beige. Poor Dad. He’s painted and repainted so many walls over the past twenty-nine years of marriage only to end up with the same taupes and eggshells.
“How many times have you had to repaint?” I ask.
“Well, first I painted the ceiling in the dining room in a light blue your mother picked out, and she seemed happy with that. Then the next day, while she was at work, I did the dining room walls in this sort of dark gray with a bit of green in it. Looked real sharp. When she got home, I asked how she liked it and she said it was okay.
“Then she got real quiet; didn’t say two words to me for the rest of the evening. I kept asking what was wrong. She said she was tired.” Dad rolls his eyes. “Next thing I know she starts crying and says she wishes she could go to sleep and never wake up.”
Only twice have I seen my mother cry. The first was when her brother died; the second was on the morning I surrendered. She was lying in bed staring at the television when I went in to say good-bye. The exchange was hauntingly ordinary–she asked if I had everything; I told her I’d call. But when I leaned in to hug her, her body softened, and she said in my ear, “I’m crying.”
“Finally,” Dad says, “I get her to tell me what’s wrong–she hates the paint color. She says it’s awful.”
“What color is it now?” I ask.
“She decided on ‘Indian River.'”
“Beige.” he says.
With some wheedling, my father convinces me to abet him in finding something sweet to nibble. At the vending machines, the chocolate cupcakes I select become ensnarled in a bag of Doritos and refuse to drop causing us to consider momentarily the paths our lives have taken. Reluctantly, Dad deposits four more quarters into the machine, and, sacrificially–for I know his heart was set on a Pay Day–he chooses the cupcakes again.
Back at our seats, I ask my father if he’s found work, and he tells me about his recent interview with a meals-on-wheels and the tour they gave him of their kitchen with its one hundred-gallon kettles and ovens the size of walk-in closets. He pauses to ask if he’s boring me; I shake my head and smile. “I really thought I’d get a call back,” he continues and adds, shrugging, “It’s hard for an old fuck to find work.”
At two-thirty, we collect our empty soda cans and cellophane wrappers and add them to the amassing piles now spilling from the room’s receptacles. If he leaves now, he should make it back to Dallas before ten. We hug and again I’m surprised by the tenacity in his grip.
In a narrow back room galley divided into four partitioned changing areas, I strip down to my socks and lift my balls. Turn, squat, and cough.
Outside the compound’s interior yard, the air is surprisingly warm, not cold as the blanched sky suggests. Walking back to my unit, I pass one of four spherical ornaments, each four-feet tall, planted equidistant along the paved mall that runs from the recreation yard to the chow hall. Once a muddy sienna, they were recently repainted to coincide with last month’s visit by the director of the Bureau of Prisons.
This one here resembles a globe with each continent a different color. Painted in black script along the orb’s pedestal are four words–Faith, Humanity, Respect, and Responsibility. On the next ornament is a gold pocket watch with two gray doves flying free from a crack in its face. The base reads Patience, Growth, Courage, and Perseverance.